Innovation is critical to the future of USAID, and our ability to reach development goals effectively. The first-ever Global Development Policy calls on USAID to, “increase our investments and engagement in development-focused innovation by seeking and scaling up potential game-changing development technologies.” As the term innovation becomes more common in the international and American dialogue, and given our focus on innovation in USAID Forward, I’d like to spell out clearly what innovation means for USAID.
At USAID, we use “innovation” to refer to novel business or organizational models, operational or production processes, or products or services that lead to substantial improvements (not incremental ones) in executing against development challenges. Innovations can involve everything from novel science and technology programs, like a new disease diagnostic that is far cheaper than previous tests, to original ways of engaging the private sector as an efficient distribution channel, to new ways of financing the outcomes or obtain far more leverage than the Agency normally gets through our traditional partnerships. To be meaningful, innovation has to be mean more than anything new, interesting, or exciting. That’s why we link innovation to producing improvements that are well beyond incremental, in terms of cost, impact, beneficiaries reached, time saved, etc. We are used to achieving these breakthroughs with pharmaceuticals but not for much of the rest of our work.
Innovation is not new to USAID. Over the course of USAID’s history, the Agency has adopted numerous business processes and helped identify and support development practices that drastically improved our delivery of development outcomes. As Administrator Shah has pointed out, USAID “helped develop the innovations that produced the Green Revolution and pioneered Oral Rehydration Therapy in Bangladesh.”
But we need to recognize innovation more often and could use more systematic ways to test and scale promising breakthroughs – from inside and outside the Agency. By making innovation a pillar of the USAID Forward effort, we want to create mechanisms that more systematically seek, test, incubate, and mainstream innovative development solutions, encouraging innovation among our own staff and business processes through efforts like procurement reform, training (innovation can absolutely be fostered), and rewarding innovative practices across the Agency more regularly. We want USAID to be an agency that busts through institutional barriers to innovation, including our own.